GRETZKY, ORR AND OTHER STUFF

TORONTO (Aug. 7) — Random reflections on a summer Sunday…

I was rather delighted to learn that a Wayne Gretzky rookie card from the 1979–80 O–Pee–Chee Canada set fetched $465,000 (U.S. funds) at an auction in Atlantic City, N.J. this week. I have one–such item — touched only when I placed the ’79–80 cards in plastic sleeves nearly 37 years ago. As I recall, I coughed up something like $14.95 for the set at a local convenience store. Even more promising is a Bobby Orr rookie card from the 1966–67 Topps hockey set that I purchased from a Montreal–based company in 1988. The 132–card collection from the last year of the six–team National Hockey League cost me $200, plus shipping. The Orr card, pictured below, is in remarkably good condition… and close to perfectly–centered.

At some point, I should be able to turn a profit on each investment.

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A friend of mine had three Orr rookie cards — also in splendid condition. Against the advice of others, he got Bobby to sign them at a memorabilia show here in town about 15 years ago. You’d think No. 4’s autograph would increase the value of the items. In the sports–card collecting industry, however, untouched and pristine are the bench–marks. Which describe the vast majority of my most relevant cards — including the full 1964–65 Topps “tall boys” set. It, too, was purchased in the late–80’s… for $175. The 110–card compilation is particularly rare and valuable for the size of the cards: 4½ inches in height (comparison, below, to traditional cards). My 1964–65 and 1966–67 NHL sets have un–marked check lists. Which is very important.

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THE 1964–65 BOB BAUN CARD (LEFT) NEXT TO THE NORMAL–SIZED CARD OF 1965–66. ALSO, THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS GOALTENDING TANDEM IN THE ’64–65 “TALL BOYS” HOCKEY SET.

I’m open to hearing from interested buyers or auctioneers.

Please email me: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM.

LAY LADY LAY…

I was driving with my son, Shane, the other day and talking about famous people with whom I shared flights during my 17 years covering the Maple Leafs for The FAN–590. Beyond regularly traveling with the most recognizable faces in hockey media (Don Cherry, Ron MacLean, Bob Cole, Harry Neale, Chris Cuthbert, Ray Ferraro, Pierre McGuire, Bob McKenzie, Glenn Healy), I had a couple of truly memorable encounters.

Saturday, Oct. 21, 1995 was among the most eventful in the long history of the Montreal Canadiens. After starting the season 0–5–0 and being outscored, 22–4, the Habs cleaned house — firing general manager Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers. The Maple Leafs were in town for a nationwide telecast on Hockey Night In Canada. I was resting in my hotel room around 3 p.m. when I got a call from the radio station back home instructing me to be at the Montreal Forum for a “significant announcement” at 4 o’clock.

It was a startling revelation. The winless Habs were moving forward with three players from their past — none of whom had a lick of front–office or coaching experience. Rejean Houle was the new GM; Mario Tremblay the head coach and Yvan Cournoyer the assistant coach. Between them, they’d won 20 Stanley Cup titles (Cournoyer leading with 10). Still, the appointments by president Ronald Corey came from way out in left field. The eyebrow–raising press conference was followed, several hours later, by the Maple Leafs’ last visit to the fabled Forum — a remarkable encounter decided in the final nano–second of regulation time.

The side–show, all night long, involved two of the most demonstrative people in the game: Tremblay and referee Paul Stewart. All these years later, I can close my eyes and see them waving their arms at one another throughout the match. Randy Wood of the Maple Leafs tied the see–saw affair, 3–3, on the powerplay with 4:46 left. But, Pierre Turgeon scored his second goal of the game for Montreal at the final buzzer, which led to a tense and rather lengthy video–review. When Stewart finally pointed to center–ice, Tremblay threw his head back and thrust both his arms skyward. The old building at the corner of St. Catherine and Atwater shook with noise as the Canadiens had their first win — and points — of 1995–96.

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NOV. 3, 1995 ISSUE OF THE HOCKEY NEWS WITH THE OCT. 21 MAPLE LEAFS–CANADIENS SUMMARY.

Early the next day, I boarded an Air Canada DC–9 at Trudeau International Airport for the flight home. As per usual, I was at a bulkhead window in the first row of Economy. Toward the end of the boarding process, it appeared as if the seat next to me would be empty. At which point, none other than Jean Beliveau — the legendary Canadiens captain of the 1960’s — smiled and sat down. I immediately introduced myself (with my media affiliation) and we shook hands. Though I routinely call former hockey players by their first names (including the two greatest: Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky), my seat–mate that day was “Mr. Beliveau.” As I would observe through the years, only close friends and former teammates addressed him as “Jean.” By 1995, he had long been vice–president of the Canadiens and one of the truly regal figures in the sport.

You can therefore imagine my surprise when Beliveau responded to a question about the previous day’s events with a terse (but quiet) series of F–bombs. He was not in favor of turning over the club to men with neither managing nor coaching experience and he worried that his former teammate, Cournoyer, would fail as Tremblay’s assistant. As it turned out, Beliveau was bang–on. The Canadiens were mediocre under the new set–up, losing in the first round of the 1996 and 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs. Tremblay will forever be remembered as the coach that deliberately humiliated Patrick Roy during a match with Detroit at the Forum on Dec. 2, 1995 — refusing to pull the Hall–of–Fame goalie until he’d allowed nine goals. Roy came to the bench; bulled past Tremblay, and told Corey (seated in the first row) he would never again play for Montreal.

Houle had no choice but to trade Roy to Colorado a couple of days later… and to watch bitterly the following spring as the former Quebec Nordiques won the 1996 Stanley Cup over Florida. Mr. Beliveau, who died on Dec. 2, 2014, was an enchanting seat–mate during that 50–minute flight from Montreal to Toronto.

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As for the most world–famous person to ever sit next to me on a jetliner… well, it’s no contest.

In October 1986, I went to California to research a magazine article (during the trip, I saw an exhibition game between the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames at the venerable Cow Palace in San Francisco). For reasons that escape me, I chose to return to Toronto from Los Angeles on the Air Canada overnight (or “red–eye”) flight, which I normally avoided like the plague. This occasion, however, turned out quite memorably.

I used an Aeroplan upgrade certificate to fly Executive Class and looked forward to getting on the plane. Just prior to the “pre–boarding” announcement, I noticed an airline employee escorting a slightly–built man wearing a hat down the jet–way. I figured the man needed a bit of extra time to get settled and thought nothing more about it. When I walked on board five minutes later, this person was in the aisle–seat next to mine, in the first row of the aircraft. I excused myself and plopped into window–seat 1–A. We quickly looked at each other and nodded… at which point, I did a indiscreet double–take. Though his hat was pulled down rather low on his forehead, I immediately — and unmistakably — recognized the man as Bob Dylan.

While resisting the urge to pull a Ralph Kramden “humina–humina–humina”, I quietly (and somewhat idiotically) asked: “Between us, are you who I think you are?”

“Yes,” the man acknowledged, staring forward.

We shook hands.

“Howard,” I said.

“Bob,” he replied.

Having read many times about the reclusiveness of the legendary folk–singer and song–writer, I offered some assurance: “This is truly an honor. And, your identity will remain with us.”

Dylan, 45 at the time, looked at me and smiled. “Thank–you. Much appreciated.”

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BOB DYLAN, AS HE APPEARED IN 1986.

Climbing out, moments later, in darkness over the Pacific Ocean, I was startled when my seat–mate nudged me with his elbow and asked: “What brings you to Toronto?”

“It’s home,” I replied. “How ’bout you?”

“Oh, just some business,” he said.

I took the opportunity to quietly discuss music — informing him, at one point, of my affinity for the folk–rock quartet of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. As with all–such musicians of the 1960’s, CSN&Y had been heavily–influenced by Dylan’s song–writing. The foursome debuted in the middle of the night during the famed Woodstock music festival of August 1969 in upstate New York.

“I’ve worked with all four of them,” Dylan said. “I agree. They make wonderful music.”

Shortly afterward, the now–75–year–old native of Duluth, Minnesota nodded off. Which I had planned on doing as well. Not so easy, however, after chatting with one of the most recognizable people on Earth. Instead, I stuck my nose in a book, hoping Dylan might awaken and wish to converse some more. No such luck. He slept through the entire 4½–hour trip and was aroused by a flight attendant who raised his seat into the “upright position” for final approach to Pearson Airport. We landed in pre–dawn light after 6 a.m.

“Pleasure to have met you,” I said as we stepped off the plane.

“Same here,” he replied — hat pulled very low, once again, on his forehead.

NO. 4  THE ROOKIE

I came across these photos of Bobby Orr, taken by Sports Illustrated Magazine during an afternoon game at the old Detroit Olympia on Mar. 18, 1967 — two days before his 19th birthday. The crew–cut teenager was on his way to winning the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie–of–the–year… and to revolutionizing the game from the defense position. The initial photo shows Orr in back of Detroit veteran Norm Ullman (7) prior to a face–off. It went somewhat viral on my Facebook page this week. In the latter image, the Parry Sound, Ont. native is chased by Red Wings’ captain Alex Delvecchio — at 35, nearly twice Orr’s age in 1967.

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MAR. 25, 1967 ISSUE OF THE HOCKEY NEWS WITH MAR. 18 BOSTON–DETROIT SUMMARY.

BLADES AND BRASS

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Leave it, again, to my hockey–encyclopedia son to show me this remarkable, 10–minute film presentation from the Montreal Forum during the 1966–67 NHL season: http://bit.ly/2bcoFwo. I was astonished by these clear, color images — with the Expo ’67 logo painted in the center–ice circle. All of the great players from the final year of the six–team NHL are featured, including Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Dave Keon, Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk. Take a few moments to look. You won’t be disappointed.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

6 comments on “GRETZKY, ORR AND OTHER STUFF

  1. My ex wife once shared a flight to San Diego from Toronto with Eugene Levy. She, being Turkish, only vaguely recognized him. Violating FAA rules she secretly snapped a picture of him and sent it to me in flight asking me who he was? I told her his name and said he would be impressed if she introduced herself so….she did. “Mr Bittman, my name is Helen.” She’s still mad at me for that one.

  2. Howard

    The logo at centre ice, in the picture, was from Expo 67, an M and a W for ‘Man and his World’.

  3. As for Bob’s “business” in Toronto, chances are that it had something to do with the film “Hearts of Fire”, which was released in 1987 but had location filming in several spots around Toronto and Hamilton in 1986. Bob received top billing on the flick, but it’s unlikely he would have been too enthused about it. Coinciding with his own creative and career nadir, the film’s plot about a washed-up, reclusive rock star probably hit a bit too close to home.

  4. Great post…didn’t we have a flight encounter…?
    BTW…you follow the Jays….Wonder why no one on the broadcasts or on sports talk has (that I know about) criticized Hitting Coach Jacoby ??…even I can see what’s wrong ( I think…) …
    Your thoughts…?

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